Um, like, the humans are speaking

What AI is missing

March 27, 2023 6:00 am

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In almost 20 years of teaching public speaking at a community college, I’ve seen it all. A guy who could solve a Rubik’s Cube in under 20 seconds. A dead owl passed around the class as a misguided visual aid. More than once I’ve seen a terrified person deliver a profoundly moving speech. 

Public speaking advice that applies to nearly everyone: Slow down. Try to speak conversationally with vocal variety. Plant your feet on the ground. These common problems all stem from an overdose of adrenaline, the hormone that allowed our ancestors to fight or flee danger but that serves us poorly during an informative presentation on pet lizards.

A common pointer is to avoid vocalized pauses. This refers to nonverbal sounds like “um” and “er” that tend to fill the gaps in our speaking. They’re often just a bad habit relating to the chaotic relationship between our brains and vocal cords. They’re more common when we are less prepared, something I observe in myself during morning classes after I’m up too late the night before.

I preach abstinence when it comes to “ums” and “ers.” One or two might slip through — no one’s perfect — but a well-prepared, well-organized speech should include very few of them. I think most communication instructors would say the same.

So imagine my surprise when I read a tweet by organizational psychologist Adam Grant saying that vocal fillers — also called disfluencies — are actually fine. 

Grant cited several credible studies for his claim, all of which suggested that disfluency positively correlates with improved comprehension. We remember more when the information comes from an imperfect narrator. 

For example, saying “the new artificial intelligence interface is called, um, ChatGPT” is more memorable to listeners than it is without the “um.”

Of course, using too many vocalized fillers is still a problem that affects your credibility as a speaker. But apparently our brains like a few tossed in for mental roughage. Small mistakes tell our subconscious that this is not a robot talking; it’s a person.

Uh, hold that thought. 

The robot uprising

The fate of humanity was on my mind the other day when I spoke with a representative for an educational software company.

PitchVantage is an A.I. program that assesses public speaking. It allows for practice, provides detailed feedback, and even simulates an audience reacting to your speech based on your verbal and nonverbal delivery style. 

Many of the analytical tasks that I do as a public speaking teacher can be replicated by the software with reasonable accuracy. The software’s been around for eight years and continues to improve. Every time a new person speaks into the can, so to speak, the computer learns more about how humans communicate. 

The software doesn’t assess content, except to identify things like diction. But it’s pretty accurate in gauging vocal variety, eye contact, pacing and nonverbal behaviors. These areas cover much of what I write on student rubrics. 

Naturally, my first reaction was to question the long-term viability of my teaching career. I mean, people need to run the software, but how many, really?

Including this screed, a lot of intellectual ink is being spilled over A.I. By the time the speculation filters into the general population it becomes some amalgamation of fear, anger and jokes. I’m not afraid of this new technology, nor am I laughing. We are having a moment right now: a crossroads for the human race.

What does it mean to be human?

A real person

At 17, I was an overnight disc jockey for a radio station. I spent almost every weekend that year spinning erstwhile hits — not too hard, not too soft — completing my math homework as Huey Lewis faded into Earth, Wind and Fire.

Most of my shift was pretty simple. I played music and a sparse smattering of late night ads and gave the weather. As the clock approached “real” morning, my pulse quickened. The breaks became more complex as I prepared the 5 a.m. newscast. 

A dot matrix printer churned out news copy and entertainment content. The pop culture report included jokes for the morning show hosts to use on air. The stilted retorts ranged from mild to medium to spicy. Our northern Minnesota station mimicked the salsa preferences of the local population: mostly mild, medium on special occasions. 

I wasn’t allowed to read the jokes. Those had to keep until drive time. I read the news and sports, which meant pronouncing names like Slobodan Milocevic, Martina Navratilova and Ted Kaczynski while rattling off the exotic locales of deadly plane crashes and earthquakes.

Five a.m. also ended my solitude. On Sunday mornings, Joe would come in to clean the place and to conduct the religious broadcast on our archaic AM frequency using an operations board still powered by tubes.

Joe was a perpetual busy-body, checking gauges, cleaning surfaces, and flipping through the clipboard that held the transmitter readings. Separated by almost seven decades, we engaged in ritual small talk and little else. A lifelong bachelor, he smelled pretty bad — a subject no one ever broached to his face — but his broadcasting voice was a crisp vocal timbre from an age of diction and progress.

Joe was a longtime announcer at the station, a World War II radio operator who had attended the Minneapolis Institute of the Air when it first opened in 1946. A co-worker told me that after they made him retire, the station gave him the janitor job so he could earn a little extra money.

So when I was squeaking my teenage pipes on the air, Joe would be listening in the other room. One morning I bumbled through some tough copy only to repeat material because my papers were out of order. To cap it off, I fumbled with the buttons, cueing a song instead of an ad. When it was over, I sat back and rubbed my face in frustration.

“It’s OK,” said Joe from the studio door. “That happens.”

He walked into the studio and put his hand on my shoulder. “I was talking to a guy uptown, and he said he likes it when he hears an announcer flub up. Let’s him know that there’s a real person on the other side of the radio.”

He patted my back and went back to his chores. For as little as we spoke, it would become one of the most memorable conversations in my life.

In the years since, the radio station was bought, consolidated and automated. There are no high school kids learning the ropes anymore, or for that matter lonely old men polishing the gauges. They’ve been replaced by the resonant tones of unnamed announcers with voices modulated by digital editing. Weather breaks on many rural stations are often read by A.I.

Embracing humanity

As the years tick by, I remember many of my students’ speeches. A young Ojibwe woman displayed her jingle dress and told us what it means. A domestic violence survivor argued for funds for the local shelter with a voice steeled by fierce determination. Then there was the young man who dumped almost $100,000 in cash out of a duffle bag and told us the secret to winning at blackjack.

I love my public speaking classroom. It’s where humanity happens. Blood (rarely), sweat (often) and tears (sometimes). Everybody gets better. Nobody gets perfect. 

The biggest threat to this humanity isn’t artificial intelligence, but rather ourselves. Specifically, we forget the magic that comes from doing, and learning, and growing our minds. We were made to create, not just consume. A.I. only works with input. The quality of our input depends upon our humanity, not our processing speeds.

We are electricity coursing through a biological computer made of goo, each of us riding meat machines that we use primarily to sit down and look at screens. Maybe it’s time to, um, get up and see what else these things can do. For one thing, they can experience this world and speak of the wonders we find.

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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.